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From the passenger seat: Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner

The Many Tricks company is somewhat unique, as we’re a two-person multi-national organization: I’m based in Portland, Oregon, and Peter Maurer, my business partner, lives in Germany. We’ve met in person a few times—a couple of times at WWDC in San Francisco, and once in Portland (just after we relaunched the company in 2010).

So this time, it was my turn to travel, and in April of 2016, I set out for Germany for a couple weeks. Being something of an aviation freak, though, I couldn’t book just any flight to Germany: I wanted to fly on Boeing’s newest jet, the 787.

I started with the Airport Spotting site’s 787 routes page, which tries to list all 787 flights. I then searched for flights that would get me close to my destination, on my schedule, and meeting my budget.

With those key variables taken into account, and certain flights being sold out, there was literally only one choice that met my needs: An Air Canada flight out of Calgary to London. From there, I’d transfer to another airline for the trip to Basel, Switzerland. (Basel is the closest major airport to Freiburg, Germany, where Peter lives.)

Calgary might appear somewhat out of the way for flying from Portland to London, but it’s really not—it’s pretty close to being right on the great circle route between the two cities:

And as it’s not possible to fly direct from Portland to Europe (at least, not on a 787!), I’d be flying somewhere else first anyway, so why not Calgary?

Things were complicated a bit by the difficulty of getting to Calgary—I had to fly through Seattle first (welcome to the hub-and-spoke system). So my travel day was going to be Portland > Seattle > Calgary > London > Basel > Freiburg. Total travel time from my door to Peter’s door would be about 22 hours, which makes for a very long travel day.

On the upside, however, I had this amazing scenery during the flight from Seattle to Calgary…

But this post isn’t about the journey—my first with Air Canada, and I have to say I was quite impressed with the service and amenties—it’s about the 17 hours (round trip) that I’ve now spent in the 787…

I’ve been intrigued by the 787 since I first read about its development, so the chance to fly one was worth the hassles of getting to and from Calgary.

With only two flights in the 787, I am far from an expert, but here’s what I really enjoyed about the plane…

The huge windows

I love aviation (though I hate the hassles involved in commercial air travel). I love flying. I have my pilot’s license. So if I’m going to fly somewhere, I want a window seat, and I want a nice clean window for sightseeing and picture taking. Want to see me miserable? Put me in the center seat of a middle section. Ugh.

(Ideally, I’d also like to listen to air traffic control, but I don’t even think United does that any more.)

On many planes, I have to act like I’m the Hunchback of Notre Dame—scrunched down, neck bent in an awkward manner—just to see out the window. Not so on the 787.

The window, as seen at right, is huge. Note the “A380” marking indicating just how much larger the 787 window is. In fact, it’s so large I actually had to look up to see the top of the window. Looking out the windows in a 787 is a joy.

The cabin environment

When you’re flying in an airplane at 38,000+ feet, it must be pressurized to provide a lower effective altitude—humans can’t really breathe at 38,000 feet. In most aircraft, the cabin altitude (the “effective altitude” for anyone in the plane) is usually 8,000 feet. But because the 787s cabin is made of ultra-strong composites, Boeing can pressurize it to a higher level. As a result, in the 787, the cabin altitude is around 6,000 feet. A lower cabin altitude means more oxygen in the air, which reduces fatigue.

The other key change is that the air in the 787 is more humid than in other airliners. Why? Because the cabin is all composite, there’s no worry about corrosion, as there is on metal-cabined airliners. So Boeing can use more humid air in the 787—15% humidity versus 4% in typical airliners.

These may not seem like major differences, but they really are. I typically have a bit of a headache and dry mouth when I get off a long flight, and I feel fatigued despite not doing anything for the last 10+ hours. But after both long flights in the 787, I had no such issues. It’s still not sea level air, but the lower pressure altitude and increased humidity made a notable difference in how I felt after both flights.

The lighting

This may also seem like a minor thing, but the lighting in the 787 is just excellent. There’s no harsh direct lighting (unless you turn on your overhead spotlight)—the lighting is all indirect and not jarring. For instance, this nice daylight-yellow overhead side strip of lighting from my flight:

The rest of the cabin’s lighting is similarly subdued and pleasant. I really noticed this on the eastbound flight, where you fly through the night. As day turns into evening, and evening into night, the lights subtly dim until they’re eventually out. In the morning, the lights slowly came back up again.

On older planes, the lighting is typically an on/off (or maybe on/low/off) event, and it’s quite jarring when they’re toggled on or off. The 787 never jarred with its lighting; it just felt natural.

The window shades

Or rather, the lack of window shades: There aren’t any. At least, there aren’t any traditional window shades. Instead, there’s a button beneath each window, with five indicator lights. Tap the button, and window electrically dims a shade; touch it five times, and it goes to nearly full blackout. I tried to make a movie of this process, but it failed because I think my camera kept adjusting the exposure to compensate for the reduced light, so the end result didn’t show the dramatic differences. But this still picture certainly does…

The lack of shades removes a major maintenance item for airlines: Those cheap plastic shades were always breaking or jamming, requiring time and money to repair. And with hundreds of windows per jet, that’s a lot of shades to break. According to Boeing, the electric window shades have an estimated life of 20 years, and unless they stop working, won’t require any maintenance during that time.

As a passenger, there’s one downside to the electric shades: They’re slow. You can extend or retract a plastic shade in a second or two; cycling the electric shade from full light to full dark takes about a minute. However, a big upside is that there’s a master switch somewhere that the flight attendants control: They can darken the entire cabin, and you can’t override the setting at your seat. No more jarring early-morning flash of light from the person a row in front when they open their shade at dawn.

I think this blackout setting may also have a level that you can’t set at the seat. Why do I think that? Because on my eastbound leg, I was sitting over the wing, and looking out at night, I couldn’t even see the blinking lights on the wing—though they’d been visible at dusk.

Those massive engines

The engines on the 787, made by GE and Rolls-Royce, are simply massive. And amazingly quiet. The takeoffs were amongst the quietest I’ve had, especially for a plane of this size. (I think an MD-80, if you’re sitting close to the front, is still quieter, given how far back the engines are. But that’s also a much smaller plane.)

And those scallops on the trailing edge? How cool are those!?

Why scallops? Actually, they’re called chevrons (though I prefer scallops), and they help control the noise level of the jet blast:

To combat the sound of jet-blast from the rear of the engine, Boeing, General Electric, and NASA developed serrated edges called chevrons for the back of the nacelle and the engine exhaust nozzle. The chevrons reduce jet blast noise by controlling the way the air mixes after passing through and around the engine.

Whatever the reason, they look neat and are apparently effective, otherwise they wouldn’t be there.

The wings

It’s hard to describe just how impressive the wings are on the 787. They’re simultaneously huge and solid yet slender and flexible. Flexible? Oh yes; they seem to bend like they’re mostly rubber, with the tips bent way up during flight.

They also move around quite a bit in turbulence, which can be unsettling if you don’t know that they’re supposed to do that. (All airliner wings flex; it’s better to be flexible than to be rigid and snap.) It looks a bit weird, but the wings are not going to break.)

This brief video shows both the bend (look how far above the horizon the wingtip is), and some of the flexing during a bit of turbulence:

The wing is also quite beautiful in flight, with the graceful upward bend ending at the smoothly-integrated wingtip. You could make an uglier wing, but I’m not sure you could make a prettier wing.

Some minor annoyances

I only found three real annoyances during my flights. The first is the already-noted slowness of the electric window shades. Second, at least on the Air Canada planes, there wasn’t an on/off switch for the overhead light. Instead, I had to use the onscreen display—but not every page of the display had a light button, so I had to switch out of whatever I was doing just to turn the light on or off.

The final annoyance is the new design of the air vent, which integrates turn-to-enable functionality with press-on-edges-to-aim functionality.

With both twist and turn actions controlling different vent features, I found it difficult to simply reposition the airflow without also changing its intensity.

But these are truly minor complaints—I love the 787. After my two flights, I know that if I’ve got any more long-distance travel in my future, I’ll be more than willing to go out of my way to get it done on another 787; it’s a really nice airplane.

3 Comments

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  1. The “old” plastic shades may have been jam-prone, but the last 787 flight I was on had one malfunctioning window system that blasted everyone in our section with an Eastern Pacific sunrise while our circadian clocks were still set to midnight – not so fun. Sometimes simpler is better.

    1. That sucks … lose either way, right? Jammed plastic shades can’t be put down either. Maybe they should carry some window -shaped black removable stickers that passengers could put on the windows if the shader malfunctions.

      -rob.

      1. “Flight attendants will be coming down the aisles with extra window shades for sale – please have your credit card ready…”

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